One could write a book about how Steve Babaeko rose from poverty to become a successful CEO in the advertising industry in Nigeria.
But for this piece, let’s summarise it in four words: he dared to dream.
“The fear of failure drives me to succeed and make the best of my career and life,” said the advertising guru who left a plum job as Business/Creative Director of 141 Worldwide to start up his own advertising agency – X3M (Extreme) Ideas, which, under a year, has a client wall that boast of some major brands in Nigeria.
Hardworking, suave, highly intelligent and a power dresser, Babaeko also catches the eye with his unique dreadlocks which has also become his personal brand identity. His almost two decades of experience working with some of Nigeria’s leading advertising agencies (such as Prima Garnet Ogilvy) has helped him hone his skills as a writer, consumer behaviour analyst, business development enthusiast and brand development expert. Small wonder he describes work as ‘recreation on the go’. “I just keep having fun in it,” he said.
I hope you would not only have fun reading this interview, but also be inspired by this thoroughbred professional and entrepreneur as he talks candidly about his life, marriage, family, the business of creativity and future of the advertising industry in Nigeria; plus how one quote changed his life and added more value to his business ideas.
SU: Some of your closest friends may have thought it stupid that you left the comfort zone as Creative Director of one of Nigeria’s biggest advertising agencies to start up your own company. What made you take that leap of faith?
STEVE BABAEKO: To be honest with you, there are a couple of reasons actually. I have always been that guy who believes that my comfort zone cannot be my resting place. I am always looking at the light after the light at the end of the tunnel. Late last year, I read a quote by this gentleman called (Dr) Farrah Gray and I quote “Everything we want is on the other side of fear.” That statement changed my life forever. I have always wanted to leave. In fairness to my employer at that time, Mr Lolu Akinwunmi; we had a fantastic working relationship. He gave me all the free hand I needed, my remuneration was fantastic – even if I say so myself – He showed me love and kindness. However, it had become my comfort zone. I really wanted to move out of that zone, but I had a bit of fear in me, the fear of the unknown. But when I finally read that quote from Dr Gray, a motivational speaker; I just said it’s time to jump. I told myself, I’m on top of this mountain and for me to really fly, I need to jump without a parachute. That was exactly what I did. It was a big risk then, but I had to take it.
SU: Most people would feel that one wouldn’t take that kind of risk if he/she didn’t have some large amount of money saved. Did you have that kind of money saved or any form of cushion?
STEVE BABAEKO: Actually, I did, but it wasn’t a lot of money. Again, that is where my wife comes in, because for three years, she kept telling me to stay back when I wanted to resign, knowing that I loved my job and Lolu Akinwunmi was like a mentor to me. So she kept on encouraging me. When I turned 40 about two years ago, it suddenly occurred to me that there is no time in my life that I had ever bought a car for myself since I started using cars. It was always either because there was a lottery in the office and I won a second hand car or I was given an official car. Then, I had a saved a bit of money to buy a Range Rover sports and my wife kept on telling me that it was such a silly idea to splash that kind of money on buying a Rover. I was supposed to pay for the car the next day. But my wife told me that people who spend that kind of money to buy a Range Rover usually have N80 million in their bank account. I was a little upset about it, because she had never spoken to me so forcefully in almost our 10 years of relationship. So, I took my car key and drove out. While driving, it occurred to me that she made a lot of sense. I didn’t buy the car. Honestly, the money I had saved up became the foundation for X3M Ideas today. We were able to get funding and loans by the side, but that was the major money we used to pay for the office and start renovation before other funds came in.
SU: About a year on, critics and doubting “Thomases” are stunned with the continual success of your company in breaking new grounds and making more money than your 9-5 job afforded you. What’s the secret?
STEVE BABAEKO: I don’t know about making more money, but I have always been that kind of guy who believes that if I am going to do it, then I want to be the best at it. It has always been the driving force behind me. I am a big critic of my work and myself; I want to push it beyond the boundaries of what is normal and take it to the edge. This is how the name Xtreme (X3M) came about. Normal was not going to be good enough. We needed to push the envelope and bring something refreshing to the table. And those refreshing thoughts and ideas are what make the difference. Come to think of it, why would any major client give their business to an agency that is just under a year old, when you have agencies that have been doing it for close to 15 years? It will always boil down to the quality of ideas, difference in thinking, sophistication of your thoughts and execution. Those are the things we have brought to the table that seems to be making the difference.
SU: In a summary, what drives you to succeed and make the best of your career and life?
STEVE BABAEKO: If I do psychoanalysis of myself, I would say it is the fear of failure. I was born into a poor family and I just know what it means not have things as basic as… I don’t want to sound like Jonathan and say shoes, but things as basic as that; I never had it growing up. I left home at 16 with nothing but hope and belief that I needed to make something out of my future. So it is just that fear of failing. If you throw me into something, I go into it with all my heart, knowing that I must not fail. It is like a guy who has been to jail so many times and knows that jail is tough. And he knows he doesn’t want to go back to jail anymore, I don’t want to be poor. So that is what drives me. Also, I have a wife and kids, and I don’t want to fail them. That drives me too.
SU: You’re married to one of Nigeria’s finest photographers and creative individual. How did you two meet and how much has marriage changed your life?
STEVE BABAEKO: We met in Prima Garnet around 2003 when I was working in the Ogilvy agency in Nigeria. She was born in Enugu, left when she was 5 years old and had never been back. At the time she came, she was 25 and was supposed to come for 6 months and just check out the country where her father was from. She was also doing an exchange programme with this photo studio in Opebi, Lagos, and they came to market the advertising agencies in the vicinity; Prima Garnet was one of them. As I was passing through the office of one of our executive directors, I saw this beautiful woman there. Even though the meeting had nothing to do with me, I gate crashed because of her. Funny enough, we didn’t speak a word to each other. I listened to their presentation and they left. About three days later, I saw her at an outlet in GRA, Ikeja, and we got talking. One thing led to another, we got married. In terms of changing my life, it is the best decision I have taken because at the time I met her, I was in that period where I had just crossed the Rubicon of being a low-level manager to a mid-level manager. We connected and it totally changed my life. When I was way younger, I would do crazy and risky things. These days, I just work the straight and narrow path knowing that I have a wonderful woman who gave me equally wonderful children. So I think my life is more balanced.
SU: Being both successful, busy professionals and goal getters, how are you able to balance your work, family and marital intimacy?
STEVE BABAEKO: It is tough. Two weeks ago, she was in Calabar to do a job, while I was out of the country on a business meeting. It can get a little tricky like that and during those periods, we run around to see where family members can come in and help us fill the gap. Beyond that, I respect her because she is a professional. It means that I can come home and expect to go and start cooking because I know she’s had a hard day as well. So it helps us complement each other. I need to help her succeed. She is doing a fantastic job helping me to succeed as well, helping me take crucial decisions that have to do with my life. We also split time, like there are certain days of the week when I know it is my turn to take care of the children. We found a way around it.
SU: What is your candid advice to would be entrepreneurs in any field who are scared of the challenges of starting something, especially in a country like Nigeria?
STEVE BABAEKO: Three words. Just do it, like Nike said. Don’t keep procrastinating and saying, what if I don’t succeed? All these things are real fears. In Nigeria, you are up against the odds. The level of unemployment presently is so mind blowing. So if a company like Xtreme Ideas did not come into existence at the time it did, we won’t hire the 34 staff we have now working with us. 34 people taken away from the labour market doesn’t seem like much, but if all of us can have the boldness and courage to pursue that entrepreneurship spirit, we can take 34 in different sectors and impact on the level of unemployment in this country. Fear is the biggest enemy of mankind. Imagine what would have become of this world if Steve Jobs had been afraid to set up Apple, or Bill Gates had been afraid to set up Microsoft. Everything we do comes with lots of risk. And that risk is worth taking if it would leads ultimately to the betterment of mankind. My advice to entrepreneurs is that you have to take that risk. That is what we do. We take risks.
SU: Some agencies start very hot. But after a while, you don’t hear about them. How do you intend to stay hot?
STEVE BABAEKO: There is no formula to remaining hot. Anybody who is serious about this business knows that you are as good as your last job. Don’t go throwing a party saying we are celebrating the campaign we created last week. That is stale gist. It has to be about the campaign you just created or the one you are going to create. Once you are grounded in that reality, you know that you cannot be hot for just one campaign; you have to continually remain hot. That is what we intend to do.
SU: Many agencies are arguably one-man agencies. Is Xtreme Ideas another one-man agency? Can the company run without you?
STEVE BABAEKO: Of course. This company is running without me right now. Neophyte entrepreneurs who are just new to the art of entrepreneurship will want to flatter themselves and say I am the centre of the universe of my business. It is a big mistake. People used to say you cannot travel once you start a new company, until after a year. Three months after we started, I was out of town because I had to take care of certain businesses on account of the company and I left. The beauty of technology makes it easier for you to keep abreast and contribute to the process. It is teamwork. Only you cannot be the creative director, head of client service, media buyer or strategist. What we did was to assemble a crop of razor sharp young people. Once you provide the enabling environment, you stay out of the way and give advice from the sidelines. I can go anywhere. I am not encumbered by the fact that I am the CEO of this business, so I cannot travel. Once we have established the system, process, spirit and vision, to say we would only go for the best and nothing short of it… once you imbibe that, then you are ready to roll.
SU: There seems to be a dearth of talents in the advert industry, especially copywriters. How do you intend to attract and retain these talents?
STEVE BABAEKO: I don’t want to sound a little arrogant, but I’m probably one of the most visible creative directors in Nigeria before I became CEO and founder of Xtreme Ideas. So, creative people wanted to work with me because they were watching, and knew that I had made a huge transition from being a creative director to a CEO of another agency, and that I will continue to do excellent work. Young people want to be a part of that. But beyond that, for the past six or seven years, I’ve spoken in different schools. I go to their communication and languages departments to give lectures and organise workshops on creativity in advertising. I maximise every opportunity I have to speak. Recently, I spoke at an academy on this same business of creativity. We share our ideas and the little knowledge we have with other people so as to encourage them to also take up the business. What has happened to the advertising industry is that major corporations, the clients that we serve, are suffering the same shortage of talents that the advertising agency industry is suffering from. So, what has happened over the years is that they find it more convenient to poach people in the advertising industry. That is the closest place next to their own industry where they have trained and invested in people. And now, they are able to offer more money than your average agency. So it has even made the situation for the advertising industry a lot worse. But the little contribution we can make is keep growing the industry; get more people interested and passionate about the business of creating. Then hopefully, we would be able to do it long term, where people can be much more focused and engrossed in the business.
SU: People say the Nigerian advertising industry is not getting international recognition like the music and movie industry, as a result of affiliations with international agencies. Can Nigerian agencies remain independent and still find their creative voice?
STEVE BABAEKO: Well, eventually, we have to be. I was telling some of my colleague the other day that the past two of three years have been like the most interesting times to be an advertising practitioner in Nigeria, because a whole lot of things have been happening. You can see that the people who use to celebrate and run after affiliations are dumping it as fast as they can. The problem with that is that, now the guys you are affiliated with don’t even want to keep it as an affiliation, but they want to take control. But if you look at it from the perspective of those foreign companies, it seems to make sense anyways, because (they feel) why should I continue to invest here when I can seize control, especially when it has been totally established that Africa and Asia are the new market where growth is going to come from? So, if you look at the global business trajectory for the next five to ten years, Africa and Asia are where it’s going to happen. So these people want more than a foothold in this market, they want to grab it. In less than a year operation, I’ve had like three agencies wanting to buy into us or get us affiliated with them. And I always say the same thing that I tell everybody; my five-year plan for this company does not include getting affiliated to any company. But if we are going to change our mind, that company has to come to the table with something really fundamental beyond just, oh, use my name to trade. We don’t need your name. I’m bringing a name for myself. Why can’t I be the guy who has built a name and I’m offering that name to other agencies across the West African market to trade with? Why can’t I be the one giving out the affiliation instead of being the one taking it? So those are some of the plans we have. Part of our five-year plan also includes establishing in the West African sub region, where we can either take a piece of some business there or buy it out rightly. It is a tall order. It is ambitious. But again, that’s me. I’ve always had ambitions. I am never satisfied, because it is that local edge we have. See, let all the foreign agencies come and open shop in Nigeria today, I won’t even bat an eyelid because they can never understand Nigeria and what makes Nigeria communication work like we do. This is the only place I’ve lived all my life. So if you come here and you understand this market better than I do, then maybe I should relocate to Togo. Others may not have, but we have seen clearly that the future of this business is to be a strong powerhouse, to build strong local agencies. Then everything and everybody else would fall and queue behind you. Imagine if D’Banj had travelled to America like 20 years ago and struggle to become an artiste, who would have recognised him? But what D’Banj has done is become a solid household name in Nigeria, across Africa and now the whole world wants to work with him. It’s the same thing for advertising agencies.
SU: Recently on Twitter, you thanked the doyen of advertising, Biodun Shobanjo and some others for getting the AAAN membership. What really happened?
STEVE BABAEKO: It’s a long story. That has been resolved and I don’t really want to open up old wounds. Clearly, there was a situation where some persons did not want to have us registered for whatever reasons, I’m not even going to go into that. But I think common sense prevailed and Mr Biodun Shobanjo was one of the people who helped. Ironically, most people would not remember this, but I started my career with MC & A/ Saatchi and Saatchi, a company that belonged to Mr Shobanjo. He was one of those people who gave me my early career breaks. And I knew I needed to get people like that who had clout and were definitely voices of reason in this industry. I went to him and told him, look, you have to help your boy because this is the crisis I’m facing. These people are trying to stop us from doing business and they cannot. Graciously, he waded into it, pulled all the stops, plus all the other guys like Lanre Adisa of Noah’s Ark, wonderful gentleman; Kayode Oluwasona, Executive Director of Rosabel Leo Burnett, Sam Osunsoko of Insight Communications… they all stood up for me… I mean these are wonderful people who stood behind us and said let the truth and justice prevail. Eventually, we got our license to practice.
SU: Being a major player in this field, what do you see in the future of the advertising industry in Nigeria, considering the fact that even the recession seem to have affected the budget of major corporations in terms of its advertising sphere?
STEVE BABAEKO: The future is bright. I mean, why are all the agencies abroad now trying to run into Nigeria and take it over? It is because they see what some of us have always taken for granted, that the future is very bright, absolutely. According to the minister of finance (the country experienced a growth of 6.5 per cent GDP in 2012 and the) growth rate this year is still going to be around that 6.5, which is not bad. If you look at some of the economies in Europe, most of the very good ones are flat. See what is happening in Cyprus and Greece. The economic outlook for Nigeria is fantastic. By 2015, all things being equal, we would be ahead of the pack and overtake the economy of South Africa as the biggest economy in this hemisphere. So those are all the indices that make it mandatory for countries to want to invest in Nigeria. Believe me, the future has never been brighter. And I can see it. Other people who really know what they are doing can see it as well, which is why we dig in here and continue to do what we do best so that by the time those opportunities come, you would have already positioned yourself correctly.
SU: Being a busy CEO, how do you find time for recreation and what does recreation mean to you?
STEVE BABAEKO: Recreation is just being able to get your mind off some things. It’s difficult though, because I do some or all of the things I love in my life. I have and run three companies: Xtreme Ideas, which is the advertising agency; Xtreme Music, which is the record label; and the production outfit. So all these are interlinked to my passion, whether I am swimming or whatever, music is part of my life and I still really want to keep pushing that platform. And it is also needed in advertising, you cannot do advertising without music. So, to be honest with you, my work is my recreation. It can be challenging and tough because you need to deliver on point. But I enjoy and love what I do. So for me, work is just recreation on the go. I just keep having fun in it.
SU: Some time ago, there was some controversy about the reasons why Etcetera pulled out of being under the management of Xtreme Music, especially when he was just breaking even as a rock artiste. What really happened?
STEVE BABAEKO: Personally, I do music for two reasons. Either I am having so much fun on the project – that is, whoever artiste I’m working on or with at the time, or I’m making so much money. In Nigeria because of the issue of piracy and lack of structures, you can rule out making so much money out of it, because until those structures are in place, it’s going to be difficult to make money. So it’s down to having so much fun on the project. The moment I stop having fun on the project, then there is no point in continuing. Etcetera is a fantastic musician and I know he is still going to do well. Maybe what happened at that time was that we pushed him way ahead of his time. You know, once in a while, there are those artistes who come out way ahead of their generation. I think that is probably one of the reasons that happened. Nothing really happened, apart from the fact that we signed a three year album deal and the time came… it was something we both mutually sat down and said, you know what, we are done with this one, let’s move on. Then, I was becoming restless and wanted to sign some new artistes, because I actually enjoy the process of building an artiste. If you see what we are doing with Praiz now, I mean, it took time. We have been on the Praiz project for two years and not even released any album; it’s just been building and building. Now that he is beginning to get all the recognition he is getting now, I feel satisfied. So, it’s just that time when you just feel, okay let me do something else. And we both mutually agreed. The contract had run its course. We had our two albums, the three years had been exhausted and we just decided not to re-sign. So there is absolutely no controversy and nothing untoward happened.
SU: Do you think Nigeria is ready for an artiste like Praiz?
STEVE BABAEKO: It’s difficult to say yes or no. You know, Nigeria can shock you, just when you think you know it, something happens. For example, if you were not singing reggae in the 80s and early 90s, you were dead as an artiste. So even pop artistes, people like Alex O, was playing second fiddle to the likes of Orits Wiliki and Ras Kimono. So, everybody started singing reggae because that was what looked like the market wanted to hear. But, look at what has happened from the late 90s to early 2000; how the music massively shifted from reggae and to this Afro-pop we are all talking about now. Now I think we are about to cross that Rubicon where it looks like we are set for another change, because I follow young people online and they say everybody is singing the same thing, they want something new. I think this is where artistes like Praiz come in. And what we have done for Praiz again is to expand his market beyond just Nigeria. In just one week, he’s been to Kigali, Nairobi, now he is back in Abuja to play a gig this week and then back to Nairobi the next week. How we take the future of this business is how it is going to be. So I think the market is ready because the attention he is getting is quite encouraging.
SU: Based on your background, experience and where you are right now in life? What’s your candid advice to a lot of young people looking up to you, especially in a country where dreams die quickly; what would you say to that young man out there who is reading this interview?
STEVE BABAEKO: What I will say to him/her is that your dream is bigger than the country, government, president and the whole world. You need to hold on to your dream. Don’t let anybody ever tell you that you cannot do it, especially if you’re focused on the positive. You need to hold on to it, because we are all going to die someday and the only thing we would have left is what we have done and the impact we had on this world. And all that is encapsulated in that dream or vision we had when we were still young and aspiring. It means that is the most valuable thing we have. So hold on to your dream, keep working at it and pushing it. Never give up. Of course, this country is not short of naysayers who would tell you that it is not going to work. You can imagine the man who invented telephone; most people may have told him then that he was crazy, that how can you talk to somebody who is not there? But the guy kept pushing. Now, everybody is walking around with a cell phone. So your dream is a priceless asset. Never let go of it.